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Alex Bruford: Transforming the industry landscape

Gordon Masson talks to Alex Bruford about his first 20 years in music and the philosophies behind his ATC Live agency

By Gordon Masson on 15 Nov 2023

Alex Bruford

Having toured globally with indie-electro headliners Infadels, Alex Bruford has first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to be a working musician and has used that experience to establish and develop ATC Live as an agency that puts its clients front and centre. Gordon Masson speaks to Bruford as he celebrates 20 years in music…

When ATC Live launched in 2011, its founder and managing director Alex Bruford set out to create an agency that would be markedly different from existing companies. And 12 years later, that goal continues to be central to the London-headquartered operation.

“Our number-one priority is delivering for our artists. That’s why this company started, and it will continue to be the case,” states Bruford. “We’re not interested in volume. We’re focused on ensuring we can provide our artists with everything they need to build the career they desire. We’ve proven that we can take artists from small clubs, like [London’s] The Shacklewell [Arms] or the Hoxton [Square] Bar & Kitchen and turn them into festival headliners.”

While the agency started out with one employee and just five client acts, today there are 35 staff across offices in London, Glasgow, and Paris, representing close to 500 acts. Bruford’s personal roster includes Amyl and The Sniffers, Baxter Dury, Black Pumas, Fontaines D.C., Metronomy, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Julia Jacklin, Sleaford Mods, and The Lumineers, among others.

“The goal is to continue to grow ATC Live but at the same time to make sure we have the infrastructure, capability and services we need to deliver for our artists,” adds Alex.

“When we created ATC Live, we wanted to do something different, and I think we’ve achieved that. Historically, a lot of the agency landscape was dominated by a small number of men who wanted to retain control over the industry, whereas I’m much more in favour of supporting the next generation to come through and be successful, as well as introducing more diversity into the music industry – diversity of thought, diversity of background, diversity of people – and just trying to make it a more representative place.”

“When you’re growing up going to big arenas and on American tours, it obviously has an influence on your path in life”

His journey to this point has been a storied one, but with his father, Bill Bruford, acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest drummers and percussionists, a career in the music business always seemed a likely path for Alex.

Early Years
Born in London, Alex grew up near Guildford in Surrey and from the cradle was surrounded by music, often being taken on the road to see his father performing with the likes of King Crimson and Yes.

“When you’re growing up going to big arenas and on American tours, it obviously has an influence on your path in life,” notes Alex. “At school, I was definitely into music – I did my piano theory and learned the drums. And in my early teen years I started getting into bands and playing outside of school.

“My parents very much tried to persuade me not to follow in Dad’s footsteps, but I specifically remember a day when I said to my dad, ‘I think I know what I want to do: Iwant to be a drummer,’ and him turning around and saying, ‘Well, you better start practising because you’re not very good.’”

Unperturbed, Alex threw himself into his music. “My first gig was in 1996 at the Rock Garden in Covent Garden,” he recalls. “But it took about seven years from then to get it right and for it to become something that I did professionally.”

“A lot of the festivals and promoters that I met through the band, I still work with today”

In 2003, Bruford found himself behind the skins for newly formed quintet Infadels. “Our first gig was at the Betsey Trotwood [pub] in London, and while we only got paid £40, it felt good – we knew we were onto something. We got signed to Wall of Sound and then PIAS and Sony fairly soon after that. We were championed by Eddy Temple-Morris who hosted XFM’s The Remix Show. Eddy was really the man – he put us on his club nights and played us on the radio all the time.

“It was an exciting time. […] We were going out on tour as support for bands like Prodigy, Faithless, Chemical Brothers, all those kinds of acts, which was great: we learned the ropes through them before eventually doing our own headline tours.”

As a group of lads in their mid-20s, Infadels made the most of their moment in the sun and enjoyed close to a decade of making music together. “We went everywhere,” says Bruford. “We toured around Europe multiple times, as well as America, China, Australia, Russia, South America. In total, we played about 500 gigs around the world.”

Bruford contends those experiences were a fundamental learning curve for his future career as an agent. “I understand what it’s like to be on the stage as an artist; what it feels like to be driving in the wrong direction on your day off, and things like that. These are the memories that I look back on and use every day to try to make life for my clients as easy and comfortable as possible.”

Being on the road with Infadels also introduced Alex to a wide range of industry personalities – many of whom he still works with in a professional capacity, two decades later. “A lot of the festivals and promoters that I met through the band, I still work with today. I remember Barnaby Harrod in Spain coming to meet us at the Moby Dick in Madrid, where he promoted our show – and I still work with Barnaby now. That goes for a bunch of other people as well.”

“I remember teching for Calvin Harris at V Festival when the backing track went down. The trauma of being partly responsible for that technical failure was absolutely horrendous”

Getting Behind
Recalling how he first became involved backstage, Bruford tells IQ, “The band was quite successful, and we had our own crew. But when things started on a downward spiral, we couldn’t afford the crew anymore, so I took over a lot of the tour managing side, and I’d be settling the shows. That’s how I met the network of promoters that sort of kicked off what I do now.

“Infadels did three albums – all great in their own right. The first record was when it was really hot and going really well. But by the time that we got to the third album, I was thinking, ‘Okay, what are we going to do next because I don’t think I’m going to be doing this in 15 years’ time.’”

Having tour-managed Infadels, Bruford explored that side of the business with a number of acts. However, he was soon looking for another avenue. “I remember teching for Calvin Harris at V Festival when the backing track went down. The trauma of being partly responsible for that technical failure was absolutely horrendous. So, I realised that was not the path for me. But as a result, I have huge respect for the production crew and professionals that put our shows together. Witnessing how they assemble and tear down shows with military precision is incredible.”

Looking back at his time in the band, he confesses, “I loved being on the road, to start off with anyway. The first time around, visiting all the cities and the festivals is incredibly exciting and a wonderful experience. But when you go around again and there’s a few less people at the gig than last time, then it doesn’t feel so great.”

Nonetheless, Infadels enjoyed some stellar highlights. “Playing Glastonbury, Coachella, playing shows in Moscow and then going straight to touring Australia. China was a highlight as well, as was playing great European festivals like Roskilde and Eurockéennes and those kinds of events. We were lucky that we got to do most of them.”

“I was an agent with no experience and no roster, and I worked at a DJ company, so persuading live acts to join my roster was a bit of a tough sell”

And it could have been even better but for the intervention of Belgian festival gremlins.

“We had a memorable show on the main stage at Pukkelpop, where it was the biggest show of our career – 40,000 or 50,000 people there to see us. And all the power went down in our second song. It was the show that was supposed to be the one to break us in Europe, but sadly, no. We managed to get the power back, but it took a long time and the momentum had gone.”

Special Agent
Searching for a long-term career solution, in 2010, Bruford applied for a role at Reprise Agency, which specialised in the electronic and DJ world. “I saw they had an admin position, and I needed a job and thought I could probably do music admin. The company founder, Howard Gray, gave me the job, but he pretty quickly asked if I’d like to work as an agent and try to bring some live acts to the roster.”

The switch was challenging. “I was an agent with no experience and no roster, and I worked at a DJ company, so persuading live acts to join my roster was a bit of a tough sell. But a couple of people took a bet on me: Johnny Pinchard, the founder of music collective Off Modern, was managing a band called Fiction. And Stephen Bass at Moshi Moshi had signed a band called Teeth. And for whatever reason they chose me as their agent, for which I will always be grateful. Years later, Stephen appointed me agent for Metronomy, and we’ve had a great time working with them over the last couple of records.

“But that’s how I started my journey as an agent. I managed to get a few acts on board, and then I signed an artist called Ali Love who was blowing up at the time. We did some good work together, and he was managed by Jean Coffey, who was at ATC management.”

“A number of established agents told me that it was impossible, but that only made me more determined”

Having impressed Coffey with his carefully crafted strategy for Ali Love, Bruford was invited to meet ATC founders Brian Message and Craig Newman, and that conversation planted the seed for an ATC agency division.

Bruford reveals, “It turns out that they had been trying to persuade established agents to join them in some capacity for a while, but no one was crazy enough to do it. However, I just thought, ‘What do I have to lose?’ So, in 2011, it was agreed that I would launch a new agency – ATC Live – in partnership with ATC.”

With an initial headcount of one and a roster of five acts – Ali Love, Fiction, Teeth, The Duke Spirit, and Treetop Flyers – Bruford set about creating and building the kind of agency that he, as a former artist, would like to have been represented by.

“It was interesting,” he notes. “A number of established agents told me that it was impossible, but that only made me more determined. Immediately after the deal was done, I got on a plane to South by Southwest to start telling as many people as I could that there was a new agency called ATC Live.”

One of the first new acts to enlist Bruford and ATC Live as his reps was Baxter Dury. “He was the first artist I signed up where I thought we could have a long-term relationship,” states Alex. “He is a brilliant artist, but he was such a rough diamond at the time and was not close to being fully formed. But we supported each other as we learned our respective trades, and now, 12 or 13 years later, he’s about to play a sold-out Roundhouse – his biggest show to date. It’s been a fantastic journey with him. Those are the kinds of relationships that I love and exactly what I wanted to achieve when we established ATC Live as a home for career artists.”

“I believed there was a space in the business for an agency that was focused on artists rather than volume”

Given a blank sheet to create the type of agency he perceived was missing from the industry landscape, Bruford tells IQ that his years of being a touring musician, coupled with his experience of working on the crew side of things, helped shape a doctrine that exists to this day at ATC Live.

“I believed there was a space in the business for an agency that was focused on artists rather than volume,” he states. “For me, the music and the artists are at the heart of everything that we do. They have to come first.

“An artist can walk onto a stage and deliver that unique, magic moment that you get from a brilliant live performance. The whole live music industry and its infrastructure exists because of artists who are able to create those incredible moments, but I think people sometimes forget that. A major part of our job is making sure that when the artist arrives on stage, they are in the best possible frame of mind to create something special.”

He continues, “I wanted to have an agency that wasn’t high volume, high turnover. I wanted it to be focused on artists that we really believe in and who we’re going to support over their entire careers. I also felt like there was a space for an agency that wanted to create collaborative relationships with promoters and managers and artists: relationships that were much more based on partnerships working together, rather than the traditional old-school agent/promoter power dynamic.”

Delving into detail, he adds, “I wanted to have partnerships with our promoters in a way that we could talk and collectively decide the best way forward for artists to build their careers.”

“Taking on-board local advice is really important for an artist’s career”

And the result? “It’s been good, because historically, agents just told people what to do and when to do it. But actually, taking on-board local advice is really important for an artist’s career.”

Developing Talent
While Alex’s ATC ethos was – and is – to target quality over quantity, in those early days, he was aware that his personal roster needed to grow. “I needed something that was going to really make a mark,” he admits. “At South by Southwest in 2012, Henning Ahrens, who was at Four Artists at the time, tipped me off about The Lumineers. I went to see them playing in a church, and it was an unbelievable show: the song writing, musicianship, everything about the performance – the way they engaged the crowd – it was knock-out.

“I knew that nobody in the UK really knew about The Lumineers, but they would very soon. So as soon as I got home, I jumped back on a plane to Boston to see them at a regional show where they were touring with the Kopecky Family Band. They were kind enough to give me some time backstage to chat, and I shared my vision for them. And soon after they joined the roster, which was a turning point because their album came out in April of that year, and it was just a rocket ship journey.”

Indeed, as The Lumineers’ popularity grew, Bruford had to upgrade venues four times on their debut record cycle. “Within 18 months, in London alone, we played Koko, Shepherd’s Bush, two nights at Brixton Academy, and Alexandra Palace. It was a real calling card for the agency,” he states.

“Since then, the band has gone from strength to strength and are now a stadium band: this summer they played their biggest-ever outdoor shows in Europe, headlining the 20,000-cap St Anne’s Park in Dublin and the 20,000-cap Crystal Palace Park in London.

“For a long time, it was just a case of working all the hours there were to keep up with the growth of our artists”

“It’s been a brilliant journey, but for a long time, it was just a case of working all the hours there were to keep up with the growth of our artists. When they played Alexandra Palace, I came back to the office, slept on the sofa, and got up a few hours later to crack on with the next day’s work because that’s what I had to do at the time.

“But after The Lumineers’ success, it was clear things were happening here. And that’s when other people started to get onboard and join ATC Live.”

Alex’s Army
Having taken his time to establish the agency as a bespoke home for talent, Bruford’s first employee was assistant Josh Adley. “He was really important in helping me to get things going,” says Bruford. “In 2013, we were joined by Colin Keenan and shortly afterwards Will Church, Stuart Kennedy, and Bertie Gibbon came along.

“The fact that Colin, Will, Stu and Bertie are still at ATC Live ten years later is testament to the way we all worked together to establish a new approach. They are cornerstones of what we do here: Colin brought Passenger with him, an established artist; Will had the experience of being at Elastic and Mainstage and had a cool electronic-leaning roster; Stu was assisting Colin and has since become an agent in his own right; and Bertie joined us to help shape the roster from an A&R perspective.

“We’ve since added agents Clemence Renaut, Sinan Ors, Alice Hogg, Marlon Burton, Skully Sullivan Kaplan, Graham Clews and Ed Thompson, and internally promoted Sarah Joy, Roxane Dumoulin and Caitlin Ballard to the role of agent.”

“It’s those people that pick up the phone and give you the support when nothing’s going on that really stick in your mind”

Key to those appointments was Bruford’s growing reputation among industry colleagues who supported the culture he was trying to establish at ATC Live. He tells IQ, “I put the word out that I was looking for the right people and promoters and other people connected the dots and said, ‘You should speak to Colin’ or ‘You should speak to Will.’ That’s the pattern of how things happened with everyone that joined in the early days of the agency.”

Among those early industry supporters, says Bruford, were the likes of agent Natasha Gregory and promoter Steve Tilley. “Natasha was always a big support to me. She helped me a lot when I didn’t know whether someone was trying to rip me off or not. Also, very early on, Steve Tilley came and met me for a cup of tea. It’s those people that pick up the phone and give you the support when nothing’s going on that really stick in your mind.”

Another tenet of the ATC Live philosophy has been to allow agents to work outside of the traditional agency locations. “We have offices in Glasgow and Paris, and we’ve been very keen to facilitate flexible working for people and allow them to live and work wherever they needed, even before Covid made that more common.

“My attitude has always been that as long as people can do the job and we can support what they need, then we can make things work no matter where they are based. For us, having people on the ground in Scotland and mainland Europe has been a bonus because they know about what’s going on in those scenes more than we ever would in London.”

Another expectation at ATC Live is that agents will not simply sign up as many acts as possible in the hope that one or two of them will break. “Having a personal roster with 100 acts doesn’t seem fair on the clients, to be honest,” says Bruford. “I don’t think you can effectively service an artist if you have that many acts on your roster.

“We want to ensure that we have the time to build unique touring plans for every artist”

“We want to ensure that we have the time to build unique touring plans for every artist: whatever is right for them, for their album, for their journey, their music, their career path. Some of our artists want to play 300 shows a year, others want to play one show a year. And others want to tour skate parks. We want to be able to facilitate all those different wishes, and our job is to help artists build something unique around them every time they play live.”

Positive Attitude
Regarded as one of the agency world’s deep thinkers, and described by peers variously as “level-headed,” “sensible,” “intelligent,” and “approachable,” Bruford himself states that when it comes to the bad times, he tries to focus on the positives.

“We all make mistakes, and of course I’ve had moments where negative things have happened, but I’ve always just tried to put that behind me, learn from it, and move on,” he tells IQ.

But he is still deeply affected by the 2019 death of ATC agent Chris Meredith, aged just 37. “Losing Chris was the toughest time that we’ve had here as a business. He was such an incredible agent and beloved friend and colleague. Losing Chris was hard on everyone at the company.”

Attention to detail has served Bruford well, as he can only recall losing one act from his roster over the years. “Unfortunately, it’s part of the job, and it just comes with the territory, but I would like to think that other agents are fairly respectful. But, of course, if there’s an opportunity, they’ll go for it,” he laughs.

“We’ve had a lot of knocks at the door, but we’ve been following our path for all this time, and we will continue to do so”

The ATC Live ethos, devised by Bruford, has also attracted acquisition interest from rival agencies. “We’ve had a lot of knocks at the door,” says Bruford, “but we’ve been following our path for all this time, and we will continue to do so.”

To that end, Bruford brokered a partnership deal with Arrival Artists when the latter launched as an agency in 2020. “Erik Selz, John Bongiorno, Ali Hedrick, Karl Morse, and Ethan Berlin all came out of Paradigm in America during Covid and were setting up an agency. Erik, in particular, wanted to find an international partner, and at the same time, we wanted to have a partner in North America as well.”

Reporting on the success of the tie-up, Bruford says, “It’s three years now, and it’s going really well. Collectively, we’re the only independent agency to be able to offer global booking, which is great for us and the acts we represent. We communicate clearly, and we just provide a very dedicated and experienced service with agents in each market. We’re able to offer a personalised approach to global booking, so it’s been very satisfying to have found the right people to work with and to whom we’re very aligned in terms of the roster.”

Looking to the future, he does not rule out ATC Live satellite offices in other continents, especially as he believes that music coming out of the likes of Africa and Asia will see the emergence of new artists from those regions.

“We’ve got people in the building that represent clients from all around the world, but I think having agents that are more specialised in some of those territories will be certainly something for the future,” he comments.

“I feel very strongly that the artists need to be paid a fair share of the gross of the show, rather than just the small portion that they’re getting at the moment”

As for personal plans, Bruford tells IQ, “I’m very ambitious to continue improving our industry. I really feel as though there needs to be more transparency. We’ve had an industry that [for] too long has revolved around backhanders and rebates, and I feel very strongly that the artists need to be paid a fair share of the gross of the show, rather than just the small portion that they’re getting at the moment.

“I’d like to see serious dialogue about how we divide the revenues associated with live performance. When you get into ticketing, F&B, merch, and all the different revenue streams, we need to find a way for that to be split more fairly.”

And Alex is confident others in the industry agree. “Generally speaking, people are moving towards a more transparent business,” he says. “We’re seeing that in the States, especially with ticketing, where people want to understand where the money is going. But there are also a lot of people who like things the way they are.”

Cutting the carbon footprint of live performance is also a personal goal for Bruford. “I sit on the board of an American environmental non-profit called Sound Future, which is focused on activating tech solutions and leveraging the influence of live events to accelerate climate action.”

As a result, ATC Live provides green riders that its clients can adopt, depending how far each act wants to pursue such matters. “We want to have the tools to be able to advise them on all the possible options,” notes Bruford.

“We have to be cognisant of the wider ecosystem: we have to remember that grassroots venues are struggling, and without those grassroots venues, the talent pipeline stops”

Back To Basics Going Forward
Having successfully steered ATC Live through the Covid years, Bruford reports that the 25% of its headcount who departed during the pandemic have since returned, and employee numbers now exceed those of 2019.

“Live music is definitely back, and it’s great to see people going to shows and willing to spend money. But I think we have to be really careful about how much we charge for our tickets,” he warns.

“Lots of people are very focused on their own shows and maximising the revenue for those shows. But we have to be cognisant of the wider ecosystem: we have to remember that grassroots venues are struggling, and without those grassroots venues, the talent pipeline stops.

“Ultimately, we need to figure out a way of not just syphoning off all the money at the top but making sure that some of it finds its way into the grassroots end of the spectrum.”

That support is fundamental to the ATC Live chief, who discloses that a lot of his job satisfaction derives from breaking new talent. “Seeing an artist play their first-ever festival headline show is such a thrill,” he says. “Two years ago, Fontaines D.C. stepped on stage to headline Green Man, and the set was blistering, making it clear to everyone involved that this is a band that is going to headline many more festivals.

“Some festivals are taking risks on the next generation of headliners. Artists are getting bigger faster than they ever have”

“That moment of when you’ve taken an artist who was playing 100-capacity rooms, and you help them develop their career – the likes of Julia Jacklin springs to mind, where she recently sold-out 3,000 tickets at the Roundhouse. I started with her with 100 tickets, so it was a super-emotional evening for everyone.”

Getting Nicked
The appreciation works both ways, too. Such is Bruford’s relationship with Nick Cave that at the completion of his 32 headline festival run across Europe last summer, the artist left a signed photo album on Bruford’s desk detailing his performances with a heartfelt personal message to Alex thanking him for all he had done.

Meanwhile, the agent is genuinely excited about younger acts being given the chance to shine. “Some festivals are taking risks on the next generation of headliners,” he observes. “Artists are getting bigger faster than they ever have. Look at the likes of Boygenius who’ve gone stratospheric. So, it’s important that festivals give those artists an opportunity to headline.”

But he acknowledges that other acts – and often career musicians – are having to work hard on creative campaigns with their agents in order to entice fans back through venue doors. “If you’re hot, exciting, and new, then everybody wants to see you. But if you’re in the mid-level, where you’re used to grinding out 1,000 tickets a night, then rising costs and simply retaining the attention of fans is making life a lot more difficult than it used to be.”

Nonetheless, Bruford and his ATC Live team relish such challenges, and he concludes that he cannot imagine working in any other sector.

“It’s been a brilliant 20 years,” he acknowledges. “The interesting thing about this job is it’s all relative – a highlight can be an artist playing to 40,000 people or it can be an artist selling out to 2,000 people if that artist has slugged their guts out for ten years to get there. It’s all relevant to what that artist’s ambitions and expectations and career goals are. And we’re here to deliver on those wishes.”

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